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“An Expectation of Growth”

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Bob DeGray
February 26, 2006

Key Sentence

Every believer should know that every believer should grow.


I. Infant believers grow from worldly to spiritual. (1 Cor. 3:1-4)
II. God’s servants plant and water as God gives growth. (1 Cor. 3:5-9)


        Spring is coming. It may not be entirely obvious yet, but growth is happening all around. The color is in the grass, the buds are out on the trees, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll trim the crepe myrtles. All the backgrounds for this week’s Powerpoint, taken in and around Friendswood this week show, Spring is coming. You can no more stop it than you can stop rain from falling or wind from blowing. One blessing of spring in Texas is that it’s one of our longer seasons - it’s a little too hot toward the end, but the time of growth lasts several months. This week we bought a couple of nectarine trees, and the nursery guy assured us that unless we did something very wrong we’d have fruit by May. That’s not really likely, since DeGrays have black thumbs rather than green thumbs, but it’s a remarkable expectation of growth.

        In the same way the Apostle Paul had both a reasonable and a remarkable expectation that believers would grow and mature in their faith. It’s a reasonable expectation, since living things do grow. If you to keep an eye on a particular tree or bush, and over the course of the next month or two months you see no buds, no leaves, no growth, you’ll come to the conclusion it’s dead. You have an expectation of growth. In the same way it is reasonable to have an expectation that believers will mature from the time they become Christians. Yet this is also a remarkable expectation, because like the nectarine trees in our back yard, such growth is remarkable. We look around at the believers we know and we sometimes see stagnation, people who have been Christians a long time and are struggling with the same sins, problems and hang-ups they started with. Paul saw that in the Corinthian believers, yet he continued to have this expectation of growth. The underlying message of 1st Corinthians 3:1-9 is simply that every Christian should know that every Christian should grow.

I. Infant believers grow from worldly to spiritual. (1 Cor. 3:1-4)

        Let’s look at these verses, beginning with the first four, which show that infant believers are expected to grow from being worldly to being spiritual. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

Paul had said toward the end of chapter 2 that he did preach a message of God’s wisdom among those who were mature, those in whom the Holy Spirit had an active ministry. Here Paul is saying that he can’t count on that to be the case with the believers at Corinth - he can’t address them as spiritually mature. He says he has to talk to them not as spiritual - pneumatikos - but as worldly, or made of flesh, sarkinos. He likens this this to being mere infants in Christ.

        Now in the natural world one is always born as an infant, and the same is true of being born again. Believers start as infants. But these believers in Corinth have remained spiritually immature. Paul says that though he had spent a lot of time with them, he never saw them reach the level of maturity that would allow him to preach solid food, the challenging things of the faith. Because they were like infants, he had to talk to them not like people who were spiritually minded but worldly minded.

        Being ‘in the flesh’ isn’t necessarily a sin - Paul says in Galatians that having been crucified with Christ he now lives ‘in the flesh’ by faith. In the same way, there is no real criticism in the first part of verse 2: “I gave you milk and not solid food.” Infants behave like infants – you expect them to begin on milk. Babies are little and immature; they are weak and vulnerable; they are completely dependent on others for their food, clothing and protection. Paul’s expectation of new believers is that they will begin as babies, living on milk, dependent on the more mature for their provision and protection, but that they will grow and mature to handle the meat of the Christian life. Peter says “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” New disciples need this milk - God’s word. More mature disciples need solid food, but that’s also provided by the word. Jeremiah 15:16 “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart.” All who are in Christ need to be growing in the depth of their knowledge of the Word of God.

        If you put this together with what we studied last week you’ll notice that “milk” is truth from God’s word that is necessary for salvation and for taking of one’s first baby steps in Christ. But when a believer moves from ‘milk’ to ‘meat’ he isn’t moving from ‘Christ crucified’ to ‘deeper truths’. He is moving from a basic grasp of the cross to a deeper knowledge of Christ, and of the gospel’s implications for godly living. As Robert Deffinbaugh says “Put simply, both the milk and the meat of the Christian diet is the Word of God, centered in Christ crucified. As I understand Paul’s words, it is not that the Corinthian saints are still trying to digest the milk of the Word. They have turned their noses up at milk and are seeking wisdom from those teachers who give them food that appeals to their fleshly natures.” And that is still true today. There are many, many Christians in our culture who have never wrestled with Scripture for themselves, never gotten to the point of being able to feed themselves, but they continue to accept ‘pre-digested’ truth from good teachers, worldly wisdom frm bad ones. They never develop mature discernment.

        And this is the goal. Paul criticizes the Corinthians at the end of verse 2: “Indeed, you are still not ready.” These Corinthian believers are babies who have stayed babies. They have not grown up and matured into adult, serving saints. Growth is normal and natural, and when children do not grow up, it’s considered a tragedy. Spiritual growth is also normal and natural under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and it’s sad that we don’t view the lack of it as a tragedy.

        Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 4 that this is the goal for every believer: “It was God who gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

        Every Christian should grow toward maturity. What’s keeping the Corinthians from it? Their own worldly, self centered behavior. Verse 3: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?” Here Paul uses a different word for worldly or fleshly: not ‘sarkinos’ but ‘sarkikos’ It doesn’t mean just living in the flesh, but living according to the flesh, following it’s desires. All people are physically made of flesh, but on a moral and spiritual level believers are born again, and are no longer to follow the desires of their old nature. Sadly, far too many of us do follow those desires, and it keeps us from maturing.

        Paul mentions two desires explicitly: jealousy and strife. The first word means ‘zeal’, or ‘ardor’, and is seen as a virtue by Greek writers. But this zeal often leads to envy and bitterness. In the same way quarreling or strife is evidence that the Spirit is not in control, rather the old nature. In fact in Galatians 5 where Paul lists the acts of the old nature, both these sins are prominent. This is the behavior one would expect, Paul says, from mere worldly men. In verse 4 Paul backs up the accusation: “For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?” We explored this issue in the 1st chapter of Corinthians. Paul said “My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." Our conclusion was that we must not let fashions or factions separate us; we recognize that unity is in Christ alone because salvation is in Christ alone.

        Now Paul is saying that a failure in this area, fashion and factions that lead to jealousy and strife, is evidence of spiritual immaturity. In the words of the King James these believers are carnal, which has been updated in recent versions to ‘of the flesh’ and ‘worldly’. But there is in Christian circles the idea of ‘carnal Christians’ which has been the subject of some debate. It’s clear that there is such a category, because Paul uses it. But he has already given us two overarching categories: ‘natural man’ and ‘spiritual man’. All people are one or the other: you are either saved, having been made alive by the Holy Spirit so that you put your faith in Christ crucified, or you are lost, continuing as a natural person in natural pursuits, both sinful and neutral, but using natural worldly wisdom to dismiss the message of the cross.

        Nothing Paul says in chapter 3 negates these two categories. But he does subdivide the second category. Believers - he addresses them again as brothers - can be carnal, living according to the flesh, or spiritual, living according to the Spirit. We can learn a lot about these categories by an extended study of Paul’s letters, but we don’t have time now. Consider, at least, Paul’s words in Galatians 5, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” And then “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” But, verse 22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

        Paul could easily have written these words to the Corinthians – or maybe to us. We may be plagued by the obvious sins of the flesh that Paul listed for the Galatians: sexual issues or violent angers or gross selfishness. Or our carnality may be in the more subtle realms of pride, jealousy, envy, or strife. In addition, it’s clear these Corinthians would not have classified themselves as worldly, but as spiritual. They were involved in their church and thought themselves mature. In 1st and 2nd Corinthians we hear Paul addressing those who in pride think they’ve arrived and who think they understand, but who really don’t have a clue. So the most carnal Christian may not be the one who made some profession of faith and is now wallowing in sin, though such can exist. But for Paul the most carnal Christian is the one who has come to Christ by faith, and now takes pride in a maturity he doesn’t have. Jesus addresses this self deception in his words to the church at Laodicea: “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” The point is that it is possible to be guilty of Paul’s charge, to be in reality babes in Christ who have not grown, living according to the flesh, guided by human wisdom, and yet to think we’re spiritual.

        Let me propose therefore, three tests that will give each of us some idea of whether we are worldly or spiritual. The first is obvious. If there is some area of gross sin in your life that you are not struggling against, not seeking the Lord in repentance and dependence, then at least in that area and probably in others, you are worldly, satisfying the desires of the flesh. This could be anger, violence, sexual immorality, or habitual jealousy or strife or even anxiety. And the appropriate response is repentance and dependance, to give up on yourself and cling to your Savior, through the Word and prayer and accountability to other believers.

        Second test: Paul has accused the Corinthians of remaining like babies, not yet ready for meat, only milk. Is that true of you? Do you get your spiritual input pre-digested by me, or somebody on the radio, but never wrestle with God’s Word yourself, never seek answers to life’s questions in prolonged, basic study of the Scriptures? Until you’ve acquired a taste for Scripture and learned how to feed on Scripture, you’ll always be dependent on others to pre-digest your food. You’ll never know the satisfaction or stability that comes from a long term relationship with God through his Word. This is one key area in which it is plainly true that every Christians must grow. You can’t live on milk; you’ve got to go on to meat.

        Third, we all need to struggle with the issues of pride and humility. Even when there is no gross sin in my life, even when I have begun to feed from the word, I am still vulnerable, and perhaps more vulnerable to the sin of pride, the sin of the Pharisee. Whenever I begin to be self-satisfied and self-seeking I am living according to the flesh. When I begin to think ‘I’ve got my act together; why can’t he or she or they get their act together’ I’m living according to the flesh. When I begin to presume that I must have a certain status or receive a certain recognition, I’m living according to the flesh. When I begin to focus mostly on my rights, my convenience, and what I deserve around here, I’m living according to the flesh. But, when I begin to be self forgetful and seek the Lord through his Spirit and seek the good of others, I am becoming spiritual, I am growing the way I ought to grow.

II. God’s servants plant and water as God gives growth. (1 Cor. 3:5-9)

        Every Christian should know that every Christian should grow. Paul’s first illustration shows us that infant believers should grow from worldly to spiritual. His second illustration shows that it is God who gives the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. 9For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.

        Paul gets right to the heart of the matter: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” By saying ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ Paul turns away from himself and Apollos as individuals and concentrates on their functions. He knows that some looked to one, some to the other, but Paul contends neither he nor Apollos played the key role at Corinth. He says ‘we’re just servants’, diakonoi, the word we transliterate deacons. ‘We wait at the table to serve you. We wait on God for his instructions. He assigns us our tasks.’ This is the attitude of a mature believer. I’ve said before that the ‘servants’ found in Scripture are a group you’d want to be associated with: Abraham, Moses, Job, David, and especially Jesus, the suffering servant, who came to serve rather than to be served. And Jesus teaches that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

        So Paul sees himself as we should, as servants to whom the master has assigned a task. In the Apollos and Paul’s case it was to be instruments through whom the Corinthians believed. Notice again how belief is Paul’s one word summary of the way of salvation: we are rescued through faith, by trusting in Jesus for the work he did on the cross to pay the price of our sins.

        In verse 6 Paul shifts to a metaphor, an image of what he is talking about: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it.” Both activities are vital. Each depends on the other. It’s no good one planting seeds where the other cannot water them, and the one who waters does not achieve much if he waters everywhere except where the seeds have been sown. And both things are useless unless God gives the growth. The one who plants is completely dependant on God for the germination and growth of the seed. The one who waters is completely dependant on God for the successful carrying out of the marvelous process of photosynthesis that makes the plant grow.

        Verse 7: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” The Corinthians are focused on the unimportant work of the instruments, not on the vitally important work of the one who used the instruments. It’s would be silly to watch the Olympics and say “I’m a fan of Shaun White’s snowboard or Sasha Cohen’s skates. The snowboard and the skates are just the instruments the athlete uses to accomplish his or her goal. In the same way Paul and Apollos and all servants of the Lord are instruments he uses to bring believers to maturity. It is always God who gives the growth.

        So Paul and Apollos are part of a team; they are not rivals. Verse 8: The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.” Paul and Apollos are one in purpose and in station, both servants. Nonetheless they each have their own responsibilities: to plant, to water. And each will receive his own reward, his own wages from God for the work he has done. There are rewards for labor as the Lord’s servants. It’s not just duty, duty, duty, but also delight, as the women learned on last weekend’s retreat. The greatest and most appealing delight is the one Jesus describes in the parable of the talents: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” We all long for that well done, and it’s a reward for simple faithfulness in serving.

        Verse 9: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” A yoda literal translation of that would be ‘God’s fellow workers we are; God’s field, God’s building you are.” God has the place of emphasis - he is the focus, and all the workers, as well as the recipients of the labor, are secondary to him. The phrase ‘God’s follow workers’ is literally those who expand energy together with God. It is God who pours his love, life and light into his people, but as those who imitate Jesus we also pour out our lives and our love. We are workers together with God.

        Finally, in the Greek the last phrases can refer to either the object or the process. Thus believers are God’s field, and they are God’s field-under-cultivation. In the same way believers are God’s building, and they are God’s building-under-construction. Paul is going to shift the picture to that of a building in the verses we study next week, but for now it is enough to notice that even in this last phrase there is an expectation of growth. We are a field under cultivation, we are a building under construction. There’s a popular phrase ‘please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.’ If that phrase makes us passive I’m not very excited about it. But if it makes us realize we’re always growing, that to stagnate is to die, then I like it. The same is true of a church, by the way. A church that shares God’s heart for a lost world must be growing, both in numbers and the spiritual maturity of it’s members. To stagnate is die, and to leave undone the work of the great commission.

        So what have we said? I think the important thing here is the expectation of growth. We’ve learned that the Christians at Corinth had failed to grow, were still acting in accordance with the flesh rather than in accordance with the Spirit. And it’s important for us to avoid that trap. But it’s even more important that we take hold of the growth metaphor: Christians start as spiritual babies, and grow to maturity. That’s the expectation we should have of ourselves, and it the desire we should have for others. When we see in ourselves sin or pride or a lack of engagement with God’s word, we should identify this as a significant concern, maybe even a crisis, and take immediate and lasting steps to get back on the growth curve. Maybe that means finding an accountability partner, or getting involved in a Bible Study or small group. Maybe it means taking radical steps to turn away from sin, or to make peace. Whatever it is, this text tells us that it’s important enough to make a priority. Don’t be content to be a spiritual babe - be growing.

        The second half of the text reveals the same expectation. You wouldn’t plant a field unless you had an expectation the seeds would germinate and sprout. You wouldn’t water a field unless you had the expectation the seedlings would grow. In this picture you can be two things; like Paul or Apollos you can be one who plants or waters; you can be used of God as his instrument to plant the seed of the Gospel or to nurture believers - recognizing at all times that God gives the growth. But you are also at one and the same time the seed or the seedling or the young plant or the maturing plant or the fruit bearing plant. You are the one expected to grow. And do you grow by your own effort? Not really. Does the fruit tree strain and strive to produce the nectarine? No. It’s the Spirit’s fruit, or as Paul says twice here God gives the growth. God gives the growth. Christians should know that Christians should grow. And who gives the growth? Say it with me - God gives the growth.